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How Do I Choose the Best 4-String Banjo?

A.M. Boyle
A.M. Boyle

The 4-string banjo can be an enjoyable, fun instrument to play, but choosing the right one can greatly affect how pleasant the experience is for you. First, you should decide which type of 4-string banjo is right for you. When choosing the best banjo, the construction of the instrument is key. Having the banjo properly set up is of great importance as well. The right kind of tuning pegs also affect the quality of your playing experience.

Otherwise known as a tenor banjo, the 4-string banjo is the type usually heard in ragtime, jazz or Dixieland-style music. The true 4-string has 19 frets, although a certain style called a plectrum has 22 frets. A version of the 4-string banjo, called the Irish banjo, has only 17 frets. Each of these styles of banjo has a different sound and feel, and when choosing the best banjo for you, you should first decide which type fits your individual taste and playing style.

Man playing a guitar
Man playing a guitar

Aside from style, the way in which a banjo is constructed also affects its sound and playability. The highest-quality 4-string banjo has a heavy wooden rim that supports a good-quality metal tone ring. Brass tone rings are preferable to tone rings made of other metals or alloys. A thick, wooden rim and brass tone ring give your banjo superior sound and resonance, but they can also be quite expensive.

If you are looking for a good-quality banjo but cannot afford to pay for one with a heavy wooden rim and brass tone ring, look for one that has all-aluminum construction. Four-string banjos with aluminum construction are preferable to those with thin, wooden rims and either no tone rim or ones that are very small. Comparatively, the aluminum banjo offers a better-quality tone.

When choosing the best 4-string banjo, look for one that has a resonator in the back. Without a resonator, the banjo will not have much volume, which can be frustrating if you are playing with other musicians. If you are concerned about the banjo being too loud with a resonator, you can always use a banjo mute. Using a mute will give you the choice to go louder when circumstances warrant it, but without a resonator, you won't have that choice.

The particular head used on a banjo also affects the quality of sound it produces. Although heads made of calfskin used to be the norm and typically produced the best sound, they have largely been replaced by synthetic materials. Musicians generally prefer heads made of synthetic calfskin over those made of plastic.

Whichever style of banjo you choose, make sure that you purchase it from a reputable dealer who can set up the banjo properly. Unless the head is tightened properly and the string action adjusted correctly, the banjo will not only be difficult to play, but it will produce inferior sound. The type of tuning pegs can also affect the quality of a banjo. The best banjos generally have planetary pegs, which face toward the back rather than the side of the instrument. Planetary pegs allow the banjo strings to resonate better and will inevitably make tuning easier as well.

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